Because of her own journey, Mariah has become a legend. She has a do-rag-to-riches story that's profoundly inspiring. Mariah was born with a special gift her voice (plus, she's written or co-written every piece she's ever done). But that gift came at a price. Growing up on Long Island, New York, Mariah suffered almost debilitating insecurity about not fitting in. For one thing, her mom is white and her dad is black, which was pretty uncommon when she was a kid. It was embarrassing to Mariah that her parents couldn't afford to keep up with the new Mercedes and fancy houses in their town. (Her mom called their Dodge Dart the Dodge Dent because it was so beat up!) Her folks divorced when she was 3, and her older sister, Alison, fell into a downward spiral (it was rumored she was into drugs). Alison got pregnant and had a son, Sean, when Mariah was in kindergarten. Now Mariah calls him her "saving grace," but at the time, her difficult family situation made her vow that she would make her life different.
So she did. After high school, Mariah was singing backup when then Sony Music Entertainment honcho Tommy Mottola moved her to center stage. In 1991, at only 21, she won a Grammy for best new artist. But that professional high was followed by a personal low: an awful five-year marriage to Mottola. Mariah continued to have hit after hit, but she says she struggled to break free from his control for years. The biggest blow was emotional meltdown in 2001 after her movie debut, Glitter, and album of the same name bombed. Her tour was canceled; she was even briefly hospitalized. But she refused to quit. Today, now that The Emancipation of Mimi has so far sold three million copies, she's a bigger star than ever.
Still, to meet her, you'd never know it. She prances into the living room of the Hollywood Hills home she's renting, wearing jeans, a tank, and a sweatshirt, barefoot on tiptoe (she says it's the way she's walked since she was 4), and you immediately feel welcome. "Sorry I'm not diva-style for you!" she announces. And then, without a drop of diva-tude, she answers CosmoGIRL!s' questions about friends, heartbreaks, and how she was ultimately reborn.
CG! Reader: Were you popular when you were in school? Amareia, 15, Hawley, PA
Mariah: "No, I wasn't popular. When I was little, I moved around 13 times with my mom. That made it really difficult for me to assimilate every time I went to a new school. Because I was biracial. It set me apart in a lot of ways and made me really feel like an outcast. You want to look like everybody else, and I didn't look like anybody else. I didn't look like my white friends; I didn't look like my black friends. As a kid in elementary school I didn't know how to put myself together yet. You know how important that is. In seventh grade, I shaved my eyebrows because I didn't know how to tweeze them. Plus, my hair is kinky and it's also very fine. It's the most difficult aspects of both worlds. So half the time I'd go to school with my hair in knots."
Mariah finally figured out the hair stuff and how to dress. "There was this one time when I was walking up the driveway and I had on a pair of really tight jeans," she says. My friend's older brother made a comment like, 'Hey! Like your pants!' So that became my thing! Boys were always telling me that I had a nice ass so I was like, Okay, let me just work that! ... I became more secure about myself, but it was by the totally wrong means."
By the time Mariah reached the 12th grade, she was known as a class clown and was friends with everybody, which came in handy when she was nominated for prom queen. "I couldn't believe that I had gotten to that point," Mariah says. "I campaigned shamelessly. I would talk to the younger guys and be a little flirtatious. So they all voted for me. I won the nomination by a landslide!" Unfortunately, because of school politics, she didn't win the actual crown. But her disappointment didn't last long. "I remember saying to myself that night, What would I rather do? Be prom queen now or go on to what my dream is? Fine, no prom queen."
CG! Reader: What influenced you to become a singer? Jessica, 15, Rohnert Park, CA
Mariah: "Music was my main source of peace and happiness. If there was something messed up going on in my house, turmoil and things that were unsettling to me, I would walk and sing to myself. It grounded me emotionally. I would sleep with the radio underneath the covers at 4 a.m. and just sing along. The feeling I had was, I need to sing, I need to make a big melody, I need to express myself."
Even as a kid, Mariah was certain she's be a superstar one day. "It's bizarre, but it's just a feeling you get when you know and you're driven," she says. "When we were seven, my friend Maureen said to me, 'When you sing, it's like there's music behind you.' it was the biggest compliment I ever got. It was a defining moment for me."
CG! Reader: When you were a teen, how did you cope with heartbreak? Maryssa, 14, Boothwyn, PA
Mariah: "I never really had somebody who totally broke my heart, because I wouldn't allow it. I think that was a wall that I built up because I had to be very protective of myself from the time I was little due to the lack of self-esteem, the insecurity, the not feeling pretty, not having the same things other people had. Any boyfriend I ever had in high school, which was really only like two or three, I never did anything with them. I was so frightened of getting pregnant. I was so traumatized by what I saw (with my sister) I was like, until I'm with the person I'm going to marry, I'm not going to do that. It was a conscious decision because I knew what I wanted, and I knew I wasn't going to get there by getting pregnant as a teenager. Any boyfriend who was with me had to accept that I wasn't going to sleep with him. That's it. Sorry!"
Mariah jokingly admits that she's still kind of a prude. "I have friends who love to shock me," she says. "A friend just called me with this crazy story, and I'm like TMI, TMI! They know I'm Mary Poppins, but I can still hang out." She says that it's her innocence that makes her songs so profound. "I think I am a romantic and that's why I can write love songs that people relate to. It might even be a memory from eighth grade. I haven't lost that side of who I am."
CG! Reader: How do you stay strong when people are talking about you and you know they dislike you? Lizzie, 18, Montgomery, AL
Mariah: You just have to shake it off. One day I sat on a plane to Puerto Rico for seven hours reading negative press about myself. Yeah. It was depressing. But I've always been me. I was me before I got famous and had money, I was me when I got ragged on by talk show hosts. Every obstacle, including the 'breakdown' or whatever they called it and the whole Glitter debacle, just made me so much of a stronger person. It just brought me back to the little girl I was internally who sat there and said, "I believe I'm going to make it. Don't say if I make it, say when I make it.' Just believe in yourself."
CG! Reader: If you could be born again, what would you do differently? Natali, 20, New York City, NY
Mariah: "I do believe that I have been born again in a lot of ways. I think what I've changed are my priorities and my relationship with God. I feel the difference when I don't have my private moments to pray. I said to my father when I went through all that stuff, 'I feel like I've gone though everything but death, so I'm scared of anything anymore.' Once you fall that hard and have been kicked and kicked, you learn to protect yourself. I'm a fighter, but I learned that I'm not in charge. Whatever God wants to happen is what's going to happen, it really is 'let go and let God."
Even when people were literally calling her crazy and wrongly predicting that her career was over. Mariah says that her faith showed her the light at the end of the tunnel. And now she's had such an amazing comeback that those dark days of the soul almost feel like ancient history. "I feel like I've had endless second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth chances. It's by the grace of God I'm still here," she says. "Yes, I'm frustrated a lot of the time, I go through bad days. But I'm ecstatic where I am," It's that complexity that makes Mariah so real and yet, she says, so misunderstood. "My Saving Grace," off her last album, Charmbracelet, to illustrate the point. "Yes, I've been bruised / grew up confused / been destitute / I've seen life from many sides / been stigmatized / been black and white / felt inferior inside." That song in particular has a deeply personal meaning to Mariah. "It was saying, 'Hey, I'm a person who's been through the wringer, but that light is always there,'" she says. "As long as there's hope, I'm there with that, I'm okay."